Social housing can conjure up an image of the destitute; the Gascoyne estate in Hackney proves its success at a time of adversity.
Filmmaker Derek Smith has curated an exhibition, The Golden Age of Social Housing, which displays an intimate look at the past and present residents of the council state in Hackney over the first 50 years of its existence. Artfully curated in Hackney Museum photographs, films and memories are assembled to document the lives of more than 30 community members, a project that has taken Smith two years to complete.
Speaking to ELL, he said: “There is a lot of affection for the estate amongst all of the people we spoke to, it just goes to show how well regarded it is. There are so many stories and lives in there.
“Gascoyne is a part of the old East End, how it used to be. The exhibition looks at the estate as a major part of history, focusing on the first 50 years from 1948. It documents the journey from post-war Britain through to the start of the NHS and how social housing develops.”
The project has produced a film, book and exhibition showing a snippet of Hackney life from the mid to latter decades of the 20th Century. It explores people’s sentiments from a desperate post-war era pushing social housing. For many of the first residents, the estate offered an opportunity for a better quality of life, even a community. Some of these people had come from a home demolished by war or overcrowded East slums; Gascoyne really was a golden find.
Art deco, balconies, red brick and shining newly built architecture put a halo over Gascoyne for the dozens of families that flocked to it in 1948. This was a luxury not many low-income families could afford, the chance to live somewhere like this was completely unforeseen.
“From what we had come from it was paradise, a silly thing to say but it really was. We thought this was Buckingham palace.” John Sawyer, one of the first to arrive, said in the Gascoyne Lives book.
Tina, 76, an East End local, spoke to ELL about the effect of the estate. She said: “I am part of the Blitz regeneration; this made a tremendous difference because people didn’t even have indoor loos, we had five inch baths.”
The estate was under the Greater London Council authority until 1982 when it was transferred to Hackney Council, which at the time was struggling. The council hit near bankruptcy under Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ sales of social housing, resulting in a complete lack of maintenance of the estate. At the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties, Gascoyne had derailed.
Justine Pearsall, a current resident who is featured in the exhibition, was part of a wave of squatters that were housed in Gascoyne in 1995.
“It was much rougher when I first moved in,” she said. “There was lots of gun crime and I can even remember one morning outside of my window, a man was crouched down with a gun. There was always burnt out cars that had been joy ridden around the estate and our metal bins were always burnt out too.”
Hackney council eventually sold the estate to Sanctuary Housing in 1998 for just £1; Gascoyne then started to be restored. Pearsall spoke of the improvement that Sanctuary housing made in the beginning. Ten years on, she has become frustrated and explained they are no longer doing enough. Amongst this she also spoke of her love for the community and its diversity, which resonates with Smith’s comments about the residents’ open affection for Gascoyne.
She said: “Nowadays it is better, I live with amazing people. I used to live next to a Columbian family and I watched their kids grow up and leave. Now, I live next door to a Spanish Bangladeshi family, they are great too. My neighbour downstairs Sue, when her husband Ted died, he had been a gardener who used to grow roses in their back garden, I helped her to replant Geraniums in the old flowerbed Ted used to use because she couldn’t do it on her own. It’s just such a nice collection of people,” she said.
Hackney house prices have seen the highest growth in recent years, with a 700 per cent increase over the past two decades. For the Gascoyne estate to try and be maintained in this era of diminishing social housing and the ever-apparent gentrification in the area is a near impossible feat.
Smith said: “We need social housing, it is the glue that holds not just Hackney but London together, and without it the capital will lose its competitive edge. Bus drivers, cleaners, supermarket workers, where are they supposed to go? That is the point of places like Gascoyne, this is the main reason behind the exhibition; the importance and necessity of social housing.”
‘The Golden Age of Social Housing’ shows the diverse range of life on the estate since it was built in 1948. The community’s voices resonate in the photographs, films and memories presented in the exhibition, engaging an exploration of the lives of these residents. Gascoyne house has had its ups and downs but it is a revolutionary model for what social housing should be.
The exhibition runs until 3 June at Hackney Museum, entry is free.